Gophers' Philip Nelson trying to adjust quickly to starting QB role
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Philip Nelson hasn't had much time to ease into his role as the Gophers' new starting quarterback.
In the course of four days, Nelson has been getting a crash-course in what its like to suddenly become the focal point on a struggling, youthful offense that is grasping for a glimmer of momentum.
A throng of local media members swarmed around Nelson at the Gophers' weekly news conference on Tuesday, peppering the true freshman with questions in a nearly 15-minute session.
The soft-spoken Nelson was patient throughout, calmly offering level and calculated responses. But as he surveyed the crowd in front of him, it was obvious he was still adjusting to the abrupt change in responsibilities that he has undergone.
Media attention is nothing new for Nelson, who arrived at the "U" in the spring out of Mankato West high school as one of the top recruits in the Gophers' 2012 freshman class. In the months that followed, he was the subject of hype and speculation that he would eventually be a critical part of coach Jerry Kill's attempt to rebuild the program from the bottom up.
He wasn't expected to be in that situation for at least another year, but a midseason switch at quarterback has brought an early start to the Philip Nelson era.
Senior MarQueis Gray's ongoing struggles with an ankle injury and sophomore Max Shortell's recent rash of ineffectiveness, as well as a brief bout with neck soreness, spurred the Gophers to make a bold, potentially direction-changing move at quarterback.
Informed only 24 hours earlier of his promotion, Nelson started his first collegiate game last Saturday in the Gophers' 38-13 loss to Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. Though the results were mixed -- 54 % completion rate (13-of-24, 149 yards, two touchdowns), two interceptions and 67 rushing yards -- Nelson received praise from the coaching staff and critics alike for his poise given the circumstances.
"We were put in tough situation with Max getting dinged up at Northwestern," Kill said. "Throughout the week, we gave Philip most of the reps. Max continued to get reps Wednesday and Thursday. We just didn't want to go through this for the rest of the year, so we took the redshirt off Philip and he played very well. We'll probably need both of those young men before it's all over with."
Nelson's debut seems to have finally settled the Gophers' quarterback situation after five weeks of uncertainty. With his redshirt gone seven games in, Nelson is being positioned to be the team's starter for the remainder of the season. Now the focus becomes whether or not the Gophers' course reversal under center can translate to helping the team stop its current three-game losing streak.
"We wouldn't have pulled a redshirt off a youngster if we weren't going to play him," Kill said.
The "U" offense has been derailed since the onset of Big Ten season. The Gophers emerged from the non-conference portion of their schedule not only with a 4-0 record, but also with a 29.7 points per game scoring average. In three Big Ten games - all losses -- the Gophers have scored just 13 points in each. Only Illinois has scored less in conference play (7 ppg).
By installing Nelson at quarterback and shifting Gray out to wide receiver, the Gophers are hoping to establish a sense of much-needed continuity on offense.
Gray is not yet fully healthy. He tallied 20 yards on three catches at Wisconsin and was in at receiver on 35 of the Gophers' 55 offensive snaps, but lingering soreness in his left ankle has depleted him of some of his explosion off the line. Kill said that Gray would be kept out of practice Tuesday as a precaution as the Gophers try to renew the strength of his ankle.
The limited practice time isn't likely to hinder his availability in the Gophers' home match-up against Purdue on Saturday. Gray is being incorporated as a key target at receiver - a position he played for his first two seasons on campus before shifting to quarterback in 2011. While he could eventually see periodic snaps again under center, Kill has said that he intends to keep Gray lined up outside in an attempt to reduce his risk of another injury.
Through a veil of disappointment caused by his injury struggles, Gray has willingly accepted the move back to receiver.
"I'm all for it," Gray said. "My big thing is getting to a bowl game this year, whether I'm a quarterback or a receiver. I want the ball as much as I can. Being a receiver limits that a little bit, but it's something I'm willing to do to help this team get to a bowl game."
The Gophers have five more games to reach that bowl eligible threshold of six wins. Needing two more victories, the Gophers will attempt to get there with a true freshman quarterback and a new go-to target at receiver.
Nelson realizes the benefits that his recent transition to quarterback could have on his long-term standing with the team, but in the meantime he is quick to deflect those thoughts.
"It's real exciting to think about the future, but we really want to win right now too and we think we can do that," Nelson said. "We're really close to being a good team."
• Kill ruled out junior left tackle Ed Olson for Saturday's game due to an ankle injury. Olson did not travel with the team to Wisconsin. He has been replaced in the starting lineup by redshirt sophomore Marek Lenkiewicz.
• Sophomore receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts was expected to return to practice Tuesday after being sidelined for a week with a concussion. Receiver Isaac Fruechte was also out with a concussion. He had been cleared to play Saturday, but came down with the flu on Friday. The Gophers anticipate that Fruechte will be available against Purdue.